This UK film tells the story of a young man, who lives on a Yorkshire farm in England. He forms an intense relationship with a Romanian migrant worker, who is hired to help in the lambing season. The film gained awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and the Berlin Film Festival, in 2017.
Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) works on his father’s sheep farm. Responsibility weighs heavily upon him. Martin (Ian Hart), his father, has had a stroke and is too sick to work, and Martin’s wife is no longer around. His mother, Deirdre (Gemma Jones) looks after him. Johnny’s grandmother does what she can to care for her sick son, but also tries to cope with Johnny’s increasing alienation from his father and the world around him. Johnny drinks too much, and he is gay. When the lambing season comes, he realises that another worker is needed, and a young farmhand, Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu) is hired to assist. Johnny and Gheorghe are pushed together. They spar at first in rivalry, but then come to share their lives, emotionally and physically.
The movie depicts an intense physical relationship between Johnny and Gheorghe. Johnny has rough sex with men behind the tin sheds in town, but his sexual encounters have never been part of a meaningful relationship, and he has never wanted them to be.
The nature of the relationship between Johnny and Gheorghe is captured with dramatic impact by Francis Lee, the film’s Director, and by the extraordinary acting of Josh O’Connor, as Johnny, and Alec Secareanu, as Gheorghe. Lee makes sure the viewer understands exactly why Johnny and Gheorghe are attracted to each other. Together, they work side by side, almost wordlessly, in the isolated setting of the moors, and they share the exceptionally hard life of animal farming. Deprived for a long time of genuine, human contact, Johnny treats Gheorghe sullenly at first, and then reacts to him impulsively. When Johnny starts responding to the warmth he perceives in Gheorghe, the initial hostility between the two men changes to genuine affection. A meaningful relationship between them develops, as they reach out to each other, tentatively at first, and then with searing intensity, with explicit scenes of physical sex (see above classification Advice).
The wind-swept environment, the hardships of Yorkshire life, and the fierce brutality of animal farming are captured starkly and in detail by superb cinematography. The film builds up the attraction of the two men to each other powerfully by showing subtle shifts in body language and speech. Reluctant at first to talk to each other, the interaction between Johnny and Gheorghe produces moments of intimacy that are intense, and demand expression. The relationship between the two men is tested when Johnny returns to his father’s farm, after his father has another stroke. The pressures Johnny then experiences put his attachment to Gheorghe at risk, and he retreats into promiscuity. But memories of his union with Gheorghe pull him back.
It is impossible not to pass comment on the differences between this movie and Ang Lee’s film, “Brokeback Mountain” (2005). The treatment of homosexual attraction in this movie is knowingly portrayed, and devoid of sentiment. In “Brokeback Mountain” one of the lead characters initially denied his feeling, and fate tragically separated them. Here, there is no uncertainty about desire, and the final scenes of the movie end in hope, not tragedy. This film focuses on two people, who know they are gay, and are aware of the risks, but resolve to keep their love alive.
The film is a poignant depiction of gay sexuality and shows a journey of emotional and psychological growth for both men. Gheorghe brings warmth to Johnny in his life, and Johnny helps Gheorghe accept and tolerate the travails of others. The conflicts depicted in the movie are personal for both men, and lead the viewer in an honest way to understand how Johnny and Gheorghe feel about each other. The film is a story of love found, almost lost, and found again, when a meaningful relationship is matured by self-discovery.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting